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Nobel Winner Schekman Boycotts Journals For 'Branding Tyranny' 106

Posted by timothy
from the no-thanks-you-guys dept.
An anonymous reader writes "One of this year's winners of the Nobel Peace prize has declared a boycott on leading academic journals after he accused them of contributing to the 'disfigurement' of science. Randy Schekman, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, said he would no longer contribute papers or research to the prestigious journals, Nature, Cell and Science, and called for other scientists to fight the 'tyranny' of the publications." And if you'd rather not listen to the sound of auto-playing ads, you'll find Schekman's manifesto at The Guardian.
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Nobel Winner Schekman Boycotts Journals For 'Branding Tyranny'

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  • crossing fingers. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jythie (914043) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:13AM (#45650525)
    I suspect most academics and researchers at this point are fed up with the way journals work, I have yet to hear one of them actually praise the current system of publication. I am not sure how it could be restructured, but what is happening today is retarding research and frustrating a lot of good people who would rather just be doing what they are supposed to be doing, teaching and research.
  • by TWX (665546) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:14AM (#45650541)
    This is just a symptom of college and university boards wanting to attract attention to their institutions, which pushes tenure-track professors and researchers into 'flashier' research to help their cause to get tenure, which then drives what gets submitted to journals.

    Either make tenure easier to get so that professors are less likely to pursue fad or headline-grabbing science in order to achieve it, or encourage more grants to scientists that aren't affiliated with particular schools, so that they don't have to dance for their boards...

    Unfortunately most major companies aren't conducting basic research like IBM, Xerox, Bell, and other big organizations did fifty+ years ago, so getting grants from big entities is harder than it once was.
  • by femtobyte (710429) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:30AM (#45650719)

    According to Schekman's argument, journals --- specifically the highest-impact-factor "luxury" journals --- do play a causal rather than merely symptomatic role in the process. Such journals court papers that are "flashy," which will get lots of citations and attention (thus lots of journal subscriptions), possibly because they are wrong and focused more on attention-getting controversial claims than scientific rigor. This provides feedback on the other side of the tenure-seeking "publish or perish" culture to shape what sort of articles the tenure-seeking professors are pressured to churn out. If a scientist wants to establish their reputation by publishing ground-breaking, exciting discoveries, there's nothing a-priori wrong with that; the failure comes when joined with impact-factor-seeking journals applying distorted lower standards for scientific rigor for "attention-getting" work (while rejecting solid but "boring" research papers).

  • by bradley13 (1118935) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:40AM (#45650815) Homepage

    Not only are many (most?) academics fed up with the big journals, we are also generally fed up with publication pressure. Our school is just now going through a review. The accreditation people want number of publication. It doesn't matter what you wrote about, or whether you had anything useful to say, it's just numbers.

    Who read about the University of Edinburgh physicist: He just won the Nobel prize, and has published a total of 10 papers in his entire career. As he said: today he wouldn't even get a job.

    I understand that school administrations want some way to measure faculty performance. But just as student reviews are a dumb way to assess teaching quality (because demanding teachers may be rated as poorly as incompetent teachers), number of publications is a dumb way to assess research quality.

  • by jythie (914043) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:40AM (#45650817)
    That has its own problems. As much as bloggers try to claim otherwise, publishing online has generally been a rather poor substitute for peer review and generally allows for a lot of really bad science to get wide attention. While journals are not perfect, they do (usually) maintain some minimum bars and filters for the material that goes into them.
  • by jythie (914043) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:45AM (#45650857)
    Though that touches on one of the other major problems, the one I would argue is bigger then the publishing one. Setting up labs with expertise is a nightmare since you are not allowed to have a 'war chest'. If you have a 6 month grant, a month gap, then a 6 month grant, you loose all your people between the two grants. Unless you are one of the tenured people who is immune to the gaps, working in university research is riskier then corporate, which causes a significant brain drain and leads to inferior research since keeping experienced people over time is difficult.
  • by sinij (911942) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @11:49AM (#45650899) Journal
    Journals are only partially to blame for dysfunction of scientific publishing. By far the most harmful actor is pressure to publish papers regardless of quality and sometimes even fraudulently.

    "Publish or perish" is a unique pressure on mid-career academics to churn out publications. It is administrative metric that when applied can lead to career-ending outcomes for academics that are deemed "unproductive" This highly arbitrary metric looks at a number of papers published and sometimes journal impact factor, but it fails to measure scientific contribution to the field. Application of this metric linked to all kinds of scientific misconduct - from correlation fishing expeditions, to questionable practices in formulating research questions, to outright 'data cooking' and fraud.
  • by umafuckit (2980809) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @12:19PM (#45651209)
    Saying "Publish or perish must go" is great, we all like the sound of that. But then what do you replace it with? Any metric that you come up with will be gamed if the people being measured know how you're measuring them. It's easy to point the finger at journals, funding committees, and hiring committees and say that the publish or perish mentality is their fault. But it's also the fault of researchers who choose to play the game. Researchers choose to break down papers into many smaller ones in order to increase publication count. Researchers choose to waste everyone's time by gambling and submitting to progressively lower tier journals until the paper sticks, rather than being honest with themselves and pitching the manuscript correctly from the start. Researchers choose to publish the shit stuff they barely believe anyway, wherever it'll get in, rather than consign it to the scrap heap and start over.
  • by cranky_chemist (1592441) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:02PM (#45651715)

    The problem is that Schekman's argument is off base.

    From the article (yes, I read it):

    "These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships."

    His argument appears to revolve around these three high-impact journals serving as the gate keepers of "good" science. But his ire is misdirected. If funding and appointment panels are giving undue weight to publications in these journals, then THE PROBLEM LIES WITH THE FUNDING AND APPOINTMENT PANELS, not the journals.

    His argument is paramount to "Scientists shouldn't publish in these journals because they're too highly regarded."

  • by Atmchicago (555403) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:08PM (#45651807) Homepage
    The way it should be is that the metrics for performance are the aggregate quality and impact of the work, not the number of publications or the impact factors of the journals they go into. Why doesn't this work? Because administrators generally don't understand the science that they are "administering." A possible solution would be to make sure that the people running the show behind the scenes are knowledgeable and competent, but we all know that's never going to happen...
  • by dlenmn (145080) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:29PM (#45652115) Homepage


    FWIW, while Cell and Nature are both owned by private companies, Science is run by a non-profit (the American Association for the Advancement of Science), and articles in science are made freely available two years after publication.

    Having read his manifesto, I don't think his issue with with corporate publishers per se. His issue is with the culture of judging the quality of work by the prestige of the journal it was published in. That allows journals to further exploit the process; they have a large incentive to publish flashy research rather than quality research, because flashy research gets more citations -- thus making the journal more prestigious.

    While I agree this is a flawed system, I'm not convinced that open-access journals are the solution; there are already more prestigious open access journals -- like Physical Review X and the New Journal of Physics (both of which are run by non-profits with prestigious, closed-access journals).

    To some extent, you need both flash and quality research. I'm sure someone could do quality research on the physics of navel lint trapping, but pretty much no one would care; the research isn't interesting, and it wouldn't be worth the effort to peer review. So, for better or worse, I don't think the flashy factor will or should totally go away, although I agree it should be reduced.

    That said, I am a fan of open-access journals, but I need something to publish first. I guess I should get back to research and stop wasting time with Slashdot posts....

  • by garutnivore (970623) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:32PM (#45652161)

    As much as bloggers try to claim otherwise, publishing online has generally been a rather poor substitute for peer review and generally allows for a lot of really bad science to get wide attention.

    What randoms unidentified bloggers think about publishing has no bearing whatsoever on what scientists think about scientific publishing. Publishing online does not necessitate that peer review be dispensed with. I've not ever met an academic, be it in the sciences or elsewhere, who ever argued that print peer-reviewed publications should be replaced by online publications that are not peer reviewed.

    You're attacking a strawman.

  • by Prune (557140) on Tuesday December 10, 2013 @01:44PM (#45652315)
    I don't think you can really blame academics. It seems to be, rather, that universities have succumbed to the same general trend that made MBAs and other business/management types infuse institutions beyond just the corporate world with a management style and optimization strategies that look only at narrowly defined metrics (usually revolving around financials, PR, etc.). Academic institutions seem to be run more like businesses these days than places of learning and research, and this is reflected in their employment distribution: in just one example, "employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty" (source: [] ). I remember reading about this trend of falling faculty-to-administrator ratio quite a few years ago, along with the claim that it's been going on since at least the 1970s; it really struck home, however, when I noticed it affecting very schools I had attended. With the falling powers of faculty associations (like unions in general), I doubt that researchers and instructors could have stemmed this.

No hardware designer should be allowed to produce any piece of hardware until three software guys have signed off for it. -- Andy Tanenbaum